Thursday, 22 January 2015

A Most Violent Year

JC Chandor's third film as writer and director is about as far removed from his second as is possible: where All Is Lost was a one-man show with barely any dialogue set in a single location (more or less), A Most Violent Year boasts a tremendous ensemble cast, a dense, layered script and hops effortlessly around the industrial edges of New York. Both films, though, are about one thing: survival, and what must be sacrificed to achieve it. At least in this story, thankfully, nobody is forced to contemplate the consumption of their own wee.

Ambitious businessman Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac, sheltering beneath a towering quiff) owns and runs the Standard Heating Oil Company (named, presumably, after Isaac's character in Drive). Operating in a shady grey area somewhere at the limits of the law and aided by his aggressively determined missus (Jessica Chastain), he's on the verge of sealing a deal that will finally put him on the map, if only mysterious external forces wouldn't keep sabotaging his business. If any of that - plus the film's early 1980s setting - sounds familiar, then yes, you saw a suspiciously similar story when Bob Hoskins tried to redevelop London's Docklands in The Long Good Friday. But whereas that film predicted Thatcherism and the ruthless ambition of '80s England, A Most Violent Year is very much an American tale, concerned primarily with three of the USA's foremost preoccupations: oil, money and guns.

Morales' situation is small-scale in a film that feels like it should have a more epic, Godfather-y scope. Maybe that's down to his more-than-physical resemblance to Michael Corleone (not to mention fellow immigrant Tony Montana; if Isaac becomes this generation's Pacino, as is entirely likely, film historians will point to A Most Violent Year as the most obvious correlation), but in fact what we're watching is The American Dream in microcosm. And parts of it are more relevant to the present-day US than many of its citizens might comfortably admit.
It's a canny move by Chandor to address gun control as he does here: Morales' trucks are being hijacked by pistol-packing thugs, but he's determined not to allow his drivers to arm themselves - despite pressure from their union - for fear of escalation of violence. The wider societal parallels are blinding, but at the same time the situation works to further exacerbate Morales' problems: he needs money from the bank to buy a new production facility, the bank need him to be clean. His wife Anna, meanwhile, has no intention of allowing a little thing like the law stand in the way of her husband's success.

Anna is played, in true Lady Macbeth style, by a lip-smacking Jessica Chastain. She's mad as eggs, but her desperation for wealth is all in the detail: she dresses like she thinks rich women dress but only has about three costumes throughout the whole film, and her obviously fake nails are a cheap attempt to cover the metaphorical dirt on her hands. Chastain's scenes with David Oyelowo's inquisitive District Attorney bristle with defensive animosity, and her chemistry with Isaac is almost perpetually on the edge of explosive.
A Most Violent Year is surprisingly unviolent; not just in terms of on-screen savagery but in its general demeanour. Chandor doesn't let the leads showboat, and there's only one scene that looks like it might have given the studio's purse-string holders cause for alarm. What it lacks in pizazz, though, it makes up for in smart dialogue and a steely performance from Isaac, with classy support from Chastain, Oyelowo, Albert Brooks and Elyes Gabel as one of Morales' put-upon drivers. In an effort to replicate the muted browns and greys of the era, Bradford Young's cinematography is perhaps the weakest link in the chain, occasionally threatening to drown the film in a wave of dull, flat beige, but this is a minor quibble; A Most Violent Year is further notice of JC Chandor's intention to build a formidable filmography, and also happens to be the best Oscar Isaac film out this week.

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